I thought I could plough through the pandemic without burning out. I was wrong

“When all this is over …” These words started so many wistful sentences during Britain’s lockdowns of 2020. They carried the weight of our hopes and fears and grief and loss. When all this is over, we should have a national day of mourning for everyone and everything we’ve lost. When all this is over, we should honour our collective sacrifice by “building back better”. When all this is over, we should have a huge party and celebrate being able to dance and hug and feel free again.

But for anyone who still doubted it, the rapid spread of the Omicron variant brings home the difficult truth: the moment isn’t going to come “when all this is over”. The pandemic isn’t like a war, to be survived until the day when peace is made, and we can all exhale and begin picking up the pieces. It’s a new reality that will, at best, gradually fade into the background as the threat recedes and our coping strategies improve.

The problem is that our bodies aren’t designed to cope with this. As Emily and Amelia Nagoski point out in their book Burnout, our stress response is designed to help us run away from lions. It is something we are supposed to move through: it has a beginning, a middle and an end. One reason so many of us struggle with our mental health is that modern life is full of chronic stressors that we can’t run away from, so we get stuck in a constant loop of edginess and fear. And the pandemic is the ultimate chronic stressor. When lockdown was lifted, instead of being told to “stay home”, we were encouraged to “stay alert”. But nobody can stay alert for two years straight, at least not without consequences.

I learned this the hard way when I burned out at the end of July. Like many people, I thought I could just plough on through the pandemic and still meet my own wildly unrealistic expectations of myself. In my case, this meant juggling parenthood with writing my first solo book and taking on a new senior leadership role. As it turned out, I was spectacularly wrong. After several months wrestling with anxiety, depression and fatigue, I finally faced up to reality and decided to step away from the new job. It was wrenching, but I just couldn’t ignore the message my body was giving me: I had to slow down.

When I went public with my situation in November, I was overwhelmed by the outpouring of supportive messages. It helped me enormously, but also made me a little sad: it seemed to confirm my hunch that so many others were struggling too, yet were no longer seeing those struggles validated in the public discourse. Now, instead of being given space to process our collective trauma and let our minds and bodies heal, we have been plunged into more uncertainty.

December is notoriously a month when the pressure to have fun can itself become a source of stress, when family tensions flare and relationships are strained. This year, the weight of expectation to make up for lost celebrations, alongside the risk of spreading the new variant and the prospect of further restrictions, vaccine disagreements and traumatic memories of 2020 are likely to put this on steroids. I’m sure that there are people out there who embraced the summer’s return to normality; who had moments of catharsis and collective joy at festivals or weddings or gatherings, and enough rest and relaxation on summer holidays; who are feeling recharged and ready to deal with whatever the pandemic throws at them. But I’m also sure that I’m not the only one whose experience has been very different.

For many clinically vulnerable people, “freedom day” was anything but freeing, with the acceptance of sky-high infection rates making their lives even more restricted and dangerous. Those dealing with poverty or unemployment have faced cuts to universal credit and the tapering of support schemes, with many being pushed into debt. Frontline health and support workers are drained and traumatised. Even for those of us in more privileged positions, the experience of “freedom” may still have been one of fear and uncertainty, ushered in by the chaos of the “pingdemic”. Navigating daily life involves new layers of administrative and emotional complexity. Sending children to school entails repeated cycles of cold symptoms, testing and isolation. Travel plans are haunted by the spectre of last-minute cancellations.

As a result, many are facing the “Omicron emergency” feeling broken and exhausted, our resilience worn down by two years of unrelenting demands. The country faces a deep mental health crisis, with nearly a quarter of a million people expected to develop PTSD and dramatic rises in anxiety and depression. At least a million adults are suffering with long Covid. In Germany, people struggling with such conditions can apply to go on a “Kur” – three weeks of treatments at a spa. In the UK, where mental health services are stretched to breaking point, you are doing well if you manage to get a phone call. I am incredibly lucky that I had the financial and social safety net to weather my burnout. Even so, I still had days when I doubted whether I would bounce back. I saw with terrifying clarity how easily someone can slip into a downward spiral of unemployment, debt and mental ill-health. I felt angry that we have built a society that allows this.

Such times call for leaders with emotional sensitivity, but instead we have the misfortune to be stuck with leaders who are emotionally stunted, too often adding to our pain and fear instead of calming it. Revelations about Downing Street parties prompted a wave of grief and rage from those who felt this made a mockery of their own heartbreaking sacrifices. We have been told it is now our individual responsibility to manage our own Covid risks, even as government decisions fuel those risks in ways we cannot control. Instead of feeling held by something larger, we are constantly being given the message: you’re on your own.

So what can we do? We might not be able to deal with our stressors, but we can find ways to deal with our stress, calm our nervous systems and make our bodies feel safer. We can tell ourselves that we’re not alone. Above all, this festive season, we can give ourselves and each other what our government steadfastly refuses to give us: the acknowledgment that we are hurting and doing our best in impossible times; gentleness, patience and kindness; a sense of safety and stability in an unsafe world. We can find refuge in our fundamental connectedness, our belonging to each other and to the Earth. In the words of the Nagoski sisters, “The cure for burnout is not self-care. It is all of us caring for each other.”

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